Jules-Sebastien-Cesar Dumont d'Urville

On January 20, 1840 Captain Dumont d'Urville was exploring the same seas as the United States Exploring Expedition when he and his crew sighted land about a hundred miles west of the first position reported by Senior Commander Wilkes of the USEE four days before. A landing party went ashore on a small, rock-covered island near the ice cliff and planted the French flag thus assuming possession of the region on January 22. The claim extends from the coastline for approximately 135 miles between the 142nd and 137th east meridians extending inland all the way to the South Pole. A voyage of world circumnavigation, the French naval expedition of 1837-40, commanded by d'Urville on the ASTROLABE and Jacquinot on the ZÈLÈE visited the South Orkney Islands, South Shetland Islands, the northwest coast of Trinity Peninsula, Orléans Channel and Joinville Island. Here is their story.

Jules-Sébastien-César Dumont d'Urville was born in 1790 in the fruit-growing region of Calvados. By the age of 17 he was accepted into the French Navy and graduated at the top of his class of 1811 attaining the rank of ensign three years later. He had many interests and spoke fluently the English, German, Spanish, Greek, Italian and Hebrew languages. He studied astronomy, geology, entomology and botany.

In late 1819, d'Urville was on a voyage to chart areas of the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean aboard the CHEVRETTE when, during a survey of the Mirtoan Sea, the ship anchored off the island of Mílos. During a conversation with the French consular official on the island, d'Urville learned of a statue recently unearthed on the island. He visited the site and was overwhelmed by the beauty of the artwork whereupon d'Urville immediately wrote the French government pleading for them to purchase the statue. The government authorities responded quickly and instructed him to purchase the statue 'for whatever it might cost'. It now stands in the Louvre Museum in Paris...the Venus de Milo. King Charles X rewarded d'Urville with the Legion of Honor and promoted him to Lieutenant de Vaisseau.

August 1822 found d'Urville serving aboard the COQUILLE on a hydrographic and botanical research expedition to the Gilbert and Caroline Islands, Tahiti, the Falkland Islands and a part of Western Australia then known as New Holland. After 31 months and 13 days, they returned with numerous charts, maps, sketches, specimens and samples. After their return to France from the COQUILLE Expedition, d'Urville was awarded the Cross of St. Louis and promoted to Commander. Soon, d'Urville submitted a plan for further research in the southern ocean. Promising new discoveries and improved hydrographic methods enabling safer passages in foreign waters, his plan was approved in December 1825. On April 22, 1826 d'Urville departed Toulon on the ASTROLABE (formerly the COQUILLE) with his second-in-command Charles Hector Jacquinot. This proved to be his second successful circumnavigation of the world. Among his accomplishments were the discovery of the Fijian islands of Matuku and Totoya, successful charting of the Loyalty Islands, surveying of the New Zealand coastline and mapping and exploration of the Tongas and Moluccas. The records were so detailed that for the first time the scattered islands could be divided into three major groups: Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia. The ASTROLABE returned to France on March 25, 1829.

Upon his return, d'Urville was accused of arrogance and self-seeking, of treating his crew harshly and a willingness to exaggerate his findings. Whether true or not, he nevertheless was desk-bound, without a command, for the next seven years. Suddenly in early 1837, d'Urville submitted a plan to the navy for another voyage of exploration to the Pacific islands, this time approaching them via the Straits of Magellan. King Louis-Philippe was interested in expanding France's presence in the southern seas; he was aware of the immense accomplishments of England's James Weddell in 1823 as well as America's interest in Antarctica and so his request was accepted. d'Urville only requested one ship but the King gave him two: the ASTROLABE with 17 officers and 85 men and the ZÈLÈE with 81 officers and men. He was instructed to take them through the Straits of Magellan, across to Pitcairn Island, the Fijis, and the Solomons. From there he was to sail along the northern coast of New Guinea, then to Western Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand. But....first he would have to sail to the South Shetlands and then south 'as far as the ice permits'.

The men were selected for his voyage and promised a bonus of 100 gold francs if they reached the 75th parallel, which was beyond Weddell's southing. An extra 20 francs were promised for each degree further south. On September 7, 1837, the ships departed Toulon. At the end of the month they were anchored at Tenerife in the Canary Islands. By October 7, d'Urville had to cancel shore leave due to the irritation caused by the drunkenness of his men. Troubled by Atlantic fog, the ships were still north of the Straits of Magellan on December 10. Christmas was spent in the straits where the crew fished, hunted wild geese and prepared the ships for the brutality of the southern oceans. On January 8, 1838, d'Urville led the ships out of the straits and south along the coast of Tierra del Fuego. Four days later found them in a sea of wilderness running east-southeast into freezing fog and rain. It was not much longer when the first ice was spotted and by January 31 d'Urville was encouraged to find himself following Weddell's route. Unfortunately, the weather encountered by Weddell in 1823 was extraordinarily mild in comparison to the weather bestowed upon d'Urville's ships in 1828. On the night of January 21-22, d'Urville was suddenly awakened by a frightened crew. As he hurried on deck, there before him was a low wall of ice stretching across the horizon. With no alternative, they turned north and by January 24 it was determined they had been forced so far to the north that it would be impossible to attain what Weddell had achieved. The ships turned for the South Orkneys for a few day's rest. Depressed by his failure while suffering from gout and migraine, d'Urville was suspicious of Weddell's claim to the penetration so far to the south. He wrote bitterly of his time in the South Orkneys: 'Nothing anywhere in the world could be more gloomy and more repulsive than the aspect of these desolate regions'. On February 2, 1838, the ships were once again sailing southwards in search of Antarctica. Within 48 hours they came upon another icefield. With raised spirits, d'Urville followed it westwards and entered an inlet in the ice with Jacquinot, on the ZÈLÈE close behind. Although a brave attempt, it was foolhardy as during the night he heard the ice crack and crunch and by morning the channel had closed behind the ships.

Working frantically to free the ASTROLABE

"We then had to use every means at our disposal. Men climbed down onto the ice to tie ropes to the floes...those who remained on board hauled on them to move painfully forward, while others tried to push the ice aside with picks, pincers and pickaxes...Seeing our two ships, one thought of two crayfish stranded by the tide on a beach full of stones...and struggling to regain the open sea". It took five days to bust free from the ice-filled lake. During the process a number of the crew suffered from frostbite, including all three surgeons. Eventually they landed on Weddell Island where they hunted for fresh meat, killing and eating penguins which they compared favorably with chicken.

Continuing westward, the ships reached the South Shetland Islands on February 27. A coastline was observed stretching to the south so d'Urville claimed the territory for his king and country, naming it Louis-Philippe Land; the coastline which extended eastwards was called Joinville Land.

The ships remained in the area until early March. They mapped and charted the northern area of what is known today as Graham Land. The surgeon on board the ASTROLABE informed d'Urville of crewmen showing signs of scurvy. Concealing this fact so as not to alarm the other crew members, d'Urville accepted their fate and began a long, slow journey towards Chile. By March 27 there were 21 confirmed cases of scurvy aboard the ASTROLABE, while the ZÈLÈE resembled a floating hospital. On April 1 crew member Lepreux died. The hydrographer, Dumoulin, and the ASTROLABE'S second officer, Demas, both became ill with the disease. The ships reached the port of Talcahuano in Chile on April 6. Even though the epidemic had been contained on the ASTROLABE, there were 38 cases of scurvy on the ZÈLÈE. Dumont d'Urville had demanded too much of his men and subsequently nine men deserted him in Talcahuano. Others too sick to travel were left behind as d'Urville continued on to Valparaiso. It was here that d'Urville learned that his struggles and accomplishments were deemed a failure by his critics. He was eventually able to convince them otherwise as he displayed the ship's records, charts and geological specimens he had obtained.

Between May 1838 and October 1839 d'Urville led the ASTROLABE and ZÈLÈE on an exploring adventure across the breadth of the Pacific Ocean. The scurvy suffered in southern waters was now replaced with fever and dysentery which cost the lives of 14 men and officers during the voyage. Another six died in Hobart, Tasmania which was his departure point for his third attempt at reaching the Antarctic mainland.

On January 2, 1840 the ships were headed out to sea. Within a week, the surgeons reported a total of 16 men ill with seasickness due to the constant rolling of the seas. By January 18th they crossed the 64th parallel. At 6 o'clock the following morning the lookouts counted half a dozen huge icebergs nearby. By 6 o'clock that evening they were surrounded by at least 59. The hydrographer, Dumoulin, climbed the rigging of the ASTROLABE and reported 'an appearance of land'. The belief that land was near raised the spirits of all those aboard. At 9 o'clock the sun was still above the horizon and at 10:50 PM d'Urville wrote that the sun disappeared 'and showed up the raised contour of land in all its sharpness. Everyone had come together on to the deck to enjoy the magnificent spectacle'. On January 20 d'Urville wrote '...before us rose the land; one could distinguish the details of it...Unfortunately an unbroken calm prevented us from approaching it to make the matter certain. Nevertheless, joy reigned on board; henceforth the success of our enterprise was assured'. Despite a light breeze, by the middle of the following day they were within four miles of land. Showing no signs of a safe place to go ashore, they turned west, following the coast, until 6 PM when a boat was lowered so that Dumoulin could take sightings from one of the icebergs. Another boat was launched from the ZÈLÈE and by 9 PM the two boats reached an islet only a few hundred yards off the coast. The officers and men struggled ashore, shoving aside penguins in the process, and planted a flag claiming the land in the name of France. The men then set about exploring the islet, searching for any life. They unfortunately found nothing but a few chips of granite which was enough to prove that they had landed on firm ground rather than an iceberg. Recording the landing and departure, officer Joseph-Fidéle-Eugéne Dobouzet wrote '...We saluted our discovery with a general hurrah...The echoes of these silent regions, for the first time disturbed by human voices, repeated our cries and then returned to their habitual silence'. The boats rowed back to their respective ships and Dumont d'Urville promptly named the mainland Terre Adélie after his wife's name. The wide stretch of water along its shore is now known as the Dumont d'Urville Sea.  

Ham Radio QSL Card Confirming My 2-Way Radio Contact With
Base Dumont d'Urville

Almost immediately the weather turned brutal with temperatures dropping to below freezing and whirlwinds of snow surrounding the ships. In the confusion, the ASTROLABE lost contact with the ZÈLÈE creating intense fear among the crewmembers of being driven into an iceberg or on top of the icepack itself. The ASTROLABE struggled in seas with waves spilling over onto her decks causing her to heel over at such an angle that the leeward battery was almost entirely covered by the sea. By January 29 the ships were moving rapidly southwest with only a few icebergs in sight. A little after 4 o'clock in the afternoon a very surprised lookout spotted an approaching ship closing fast. The westbound vessel was the PORPOISE, the American ship of the United States Exploring Expedition commanded by Charles Wilkes. No signals were exchanged and no greetings exchanged. The PORPOISE sailed quickly to the west while the ASTROLABE headed north.

Dumont d'Urville spent eight more months exploring southern waters. He returned to Hobart, sailed on to New Zealand, turned north to New Guinea and Timor, north again to St. Helena Island and on November 6, 1840, the two ships entered the harbor at Toulon. They had been away three years and two months.


Upon his arrival, d'Urville was promoted to the rank of rear admiral. The Geographical Society awarded him their highest honor, the Gold Medallion. Jacquinot and Dumoulin were also promoted. The French government was so delighted with their accomplishments that they shared 15,000 gold francs among the 130 survivors of the expedition.

In 1842, while with his wife and son, d'Urville was killed in a train accident near Versailles.


Below the Convergence: Voyages Towards Antarctica, 1699-1839

by Alan Gurney.

Antarctica; the Extraordinary History of Man's Conquest of the Frozen Continent, by Reader's Digest.

Two Voyages to the South Seas, by Jules S-C Dumont d'Urville.

The White Continent, by Thomas R. Henry.

Antarctic Conquest, the Great Explorers in Their Own Words, by Walker Chapman.


Antarctica; the Extraordinary History of Man's Conquest of the Frozen Continent, published by Reader's Digest, second edition.

Chronological List of Antarctic Expeditions and Related Historical Events, by Robert K. Headland.